First a word: It's really annoying that Thaddues Russell's piece on The Blind Side (the movie) is headlined "Is Sandra Bullock's New Movie Racist?" It really feels like the hed was tacked on by an editor on deadline. That's unfortunate because I think a lot of people will scoff at the question as posed (as they should) and ignore what turns out to be a much more nuanced piece of argument. One of the problems with a relentless demonization of racism and racists (which I've continuously argued against) is that if you're not a racist, if a movie isn't racist, then presumably it's all good. Arguing over the contents of people's hearts, or the admittedly myriad interpretations of modern movie, prevent us from getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements which we have yet to name.
Anyway, Russell's piece is pretty interesting example of where you can go, while trying to get beyond your own headline:
As portrayed in The Blind Side, the story of a homeless black teenager taken in by a wealthy white family and who later became an NFL star, Michael Oher is gentle, hard-working, self-sacrificing, and soft-spoken.
Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts. His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother.
In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man...
The Blind Side, which is based on a book by Michael Lewis, purports to tell the story of a real person. And Michael Oher was in fact a parentless, homeless kid who was adopted by a white family and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. But like all saints, the cinematic version of Michael Oher is pure, entirely selfless, and therefore not human. Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, he performs miracles for white people. He stops an airbag from injuring his adoptive white brother (Jae Head) and single-handedly takes down an entire house of gun-packing crack dealers who threaten to rape his white sister (Lily Collins) and mother (Bullock).
This sounds, not so just like a magic Negro or a perfect black man, as it does a eunuch. I guess the categories aren't mutually exclusive. Russell goes on to contrast Oher's character with the characters in Precious and then the uber-black men from the blaxploitation era. But what occurs to me is that, at least in Russell's rendering, there is a line of extremism running through all of them. We have a passive hulking black mute, a black rapist who preys upon his own daughter to point of producing two kids, and a seemingly invincible walking dick with a gun. What we don't have is much that resembles how black people see themselves in everyday life. So much of the debate around blacks in film and media isn't about the works themselves, or about "positive" or "negative" portraits, as it's about what stories get told, and what stories don't.
Take race out of it--American consumers love extremes. Our news-media features strategists who are "for" or "against" the issue of the moment. Our memoirs (as I quickly discovered) are either overwrought, sentimentalist fairy tales or shocking tales of perversion and abuse (the child molestation memoir should be its own genre.) Our films are loud, overbearing and ultra-violent or they are uncomplicated, heart-wrenchers, which jerk at tears in a manner which they have not earned. And then in the middle, or somewhere below, there are stories that do something else, stories that offer something more, that reject the idea of man as porn-star. But there are so few black people in that middle, in that more human world below.
What upsets so many African-Americans is that we tend to appear either as appendages, or on the extremes. We're rarely reflected in the range, in the broad way that we live. Some of that is the market. But some of it has to do with a country that, when thinking about black people, thinks "poor" and all that it connotes, as opposed to "tax-payer" and all that it connotes. Christopher Orr noted in his review how many people were convinced that Precious was a true story, not a work of fiction.
And yet to discuss this as a race problem almost distorts things. I haven't seen Precious or The Blind Side, mostly because I have serious reservations about their relative honesty. That isn't because there are blacks in the movies, so much as it's because I've come to doubt the integrity of films which dwell in the extremes. Surely some art has to live there. But so much of it already does. I haven't seen either of these films, and yet I feel like I've seen/read/heard them ten times already. Life is short, and I spent most of my life consuming "extreme" art. These days, I'm just looking for people. Black people, preferably--but I'll take what I can get.